Tenisha Vawser was 23-years-old when she got passed over for a management job at a toy store. She had experience, took pride in her work and always went above and beyond for customers, her supervisors said. But corporate informed them there was one thing missing on her resume: a college degree.
“I didn’t get the position, and that hurt me a lot,” recalls Vawser, now 31.
The Omaha native had been down before. As a junior in high school, she got pregnant. She did what seemed like the right decision at the time and married her son’s father at just 18-years-old. But the relationship was abusive and Vawser’s self-esteem drained. She felt lost.
“I wasn’t going anywhere. I felt stalled,” she said. “I thought to myself, ‘is this all there is to life?’”
Vawser graduated from high school, soon filed for divorce and got a job. In that time she gave birth to her daughter and while working hard to provide for her family, began to consider college after missing out on the promotion. She took a few classes here and there, but often quit when the going got tough. As a single mother of two working full-time, the going got tough a lot.
Then she heard about the STARS program from her mentor. Supported by the Iowa West Foundation and administered by the Council Bluffs Community Education Foundation, STARS provides scholarships to non-traditional students who are parents wanting to go back to school full-time for a Bachelor's Degree, Associate's Degree, professional license or certification.
She enrolled at Iowa Western Community College (IWCC) and applied for the scholarship. The form featured an essay question: “How do you plan to STAY in school?” Vawser knew she needed a plan and committed not just to going to college, but to finishing. She used the scholarship funds for books, tuition, gas, oil changes, new tires, internet access, a book bag, and child care. Things that in the past would have caused her to throw up her hands in frustration she could now handle with the help of the scholarship.
There were sacrifices, working on homework late into the night, long after she got dinner on the table and the kids in bed. But sometimes she worked on her schoolwork in front of DayVeon, now 14, and Kyila, now 6, too.
“It was good for the kids to see mom doing homework,” she said. “What I do as a parent reflects on my children.”
Not thinking it was necessary to pay a babysitter, Vawser brought her children along as she volunteered for Habitat for Humanity, the Council Bluffs Community Education Foundation and for STARS events.
“We were getting help, so I thought we could afford to help others,” she said. “I’d try to send the kids off to play, but they’d see me and want to help just like mom.”
Vawser earned her associate’s degree in Human Resources and Management from IWCC but didn’t stop there. She went on to get her Bachelor’s degree in business from Bellevue University (BU) and just graduated in June. Now, she is pursuing a master’s in Organizational Performance from BU and will complete the degree next March.
“Seeing other (STARS) scholars move on to higher levels of education gave me a confidence boost,” Vawser said. “I said, ‘You know what? I can do this, too!’”
Her degrees aren’t just “pieces of paper” to her. They’re feelings.
Triumph. Empowerment. Gratitude.
And those feelings have turned into action.
Vawser has an entrepreneurial spirit. She plans to open a business, but wants to continue to give back to her community, the way it gave to her. Last but not least, she’s become a big proponent of education.
“I’m always the one asking a million questions about my children’s educations, especially at parent teacher conferences,” she said. “I feel like I’m more in tune and interacting with their teachers now.”
As far as her kids going to college, it’s often a topic of conversation. DayVeon feels it’s the normal thing to do to be successful. Kyila is happy for mom, too. Though it’s hard on everyone when she’s in school and not at home, Vawser knows it’s the right thing for her family.
“Life is what you make it, she said. “And I am determined to make my life successful, provide a foundation for my future and leave a legacy for my children.”
The deadline to apply for the STARS scholarship is July 10, 2015.